13 April 1919, India is still under the oppressive British rule. The walled city of Amritsar experienced a horrific massacre. Brigadier-General Dwyer ordered his men to open fire at a peaceful gathering of over 20,000 people at Jallianwala Bagh, without warning. Thousands of innocent people were killed and hundreds injured.
These are details that many of us know, have read in our history books and heard from our parents but the slow-burning period drama Sardar Udham is unrelenting in its pursuit to make us realise the enormity of it all. Udham Singh took 21 years to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Shoojit Sircar’s latest directorial venture, in its 2 hour 40 mins runtime, breathes thoughtfully, silently taking in the seething rage and pain. It doesn’t let us off easily, instead the understated elegance with which our brave-heart sacrifices his all stays with us long after the film is over.
It’s not like we haven’t seen such powerful true stories on screen before, but for some reason it always ends up as a tango between loud background score and crowd-pleasing dialogues. Here, while so much action is going on, the number of grace notes and silent moments help in evocatively crafting it. Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Ritesh Shah’s screenplay begins in 1931 Punjab. We follow Udham to Russia in 1933. From there he dextrously navigates his journey to London. Avik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography captures the rising anxiety as hues of deep blue and brown drench the frame and Shoojit’s mastery over his craft is on full display.
For Vicky Kaushal it’s the kind of performance that defines an actor and he mines the experience, weariness and vulnerability in his face with the customary poise of a consummate actor. He is remarkable both as a wide eyed young boy trying to make sense of the world around him and a man stoic in the face of death. Halfway through the film comes the Jallianwala Bagh sequence. No artless emotional manipulation, dramatic music and yet as the camera lingers on deliberately soaking in the horrors and the stench of death all around its impossible to tear oneself away. The aching grief of loss and injustice delicately and efficiently conveyed.
The authenticity is maintained steadfastly even with the casting and performances, as if mindful to not let our attention waver. Thankfully they steer clear of caricaturish portrayal of Britishers. Actors like Shaun Scott and Stefen Hogan lend the gravitas it needs and deserves. Amol Parasher and Banita Sandhu, even with the limited screen time, leave a lasting impact.
Sircar exercises remarkable restraint in making this powerful film with lofty ambitions. Sardar Udham is heartbreakingly sincere with Vicky Kaushal delivering a devastatingly touching performance. Watch it and let it enrich you.